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Update From Iraq: Appreciating 'The Darkness'

Capt. Nate Rawlings recently returned to Iraq for the second time. In this essay, and in others throughout the coming months, he talks about his experiences and answers your questions.

My company commander was killed in April: An explosively formed projectile, or EFP, slammed through his vehicle, killing him instantly.

Serving as his Humvee gunner that day, like every other day, was Marcus Brown, a 24-year-old private first class from Brooklyn. When the EFP hit the cab, Marcus was thrown from the gunner's hatch to the vehicle's floor. Despite a serious concussion and flash burns to his face, Marcus flawlessly executed his combat drills. He opened the emergency hatch, vented the smoke, lowered the access ramp and helped extract the driver (who would later die of his wounds). Marcus Brown was a perfect soldier on that day.

Less than a month later, Marcus and another member of his platoon were attached to my team. Our mission was to accompany over 300 Iraqi soldiers as they swept through one of the neighborhoods in the West Rashid district of Baghdad. Marcus was my Humvee gunner for the offensive.

As we prepared for that day's operation, I noticed the name tape on his right sleeve didn't say "Brown." Instead, it read "Darkness."

"What's that all about?" I asked him.

"I have two nicknames: Downtown Marcus Brown and the Darkness. I've been wearing this one for a while," he told me. As Brown smiled, his impeccably white teeth flashed against the dark skin of his face, which had healed from the bomb blast.

As the crew of the lead Humvee in our section, we required a GPS tracking screen, and the only Humvee with a working GPS screen also had a broken air conditioner. The vents proceeded to spit out hot air right into my face, a feeling akin to holding a hair dryer inches from my nose. With all the bullet-proof windows rolled up, it must have registered somewhere around 120 degrees in the car. In May, short showers keep the humidity high, so that in addition to feeling that the sun will broil the skin from your hands, sweat won't evaporate.

All day, I kept looking up at Marcus to make sure he was OK. He never complained, and he performed his duties impeccably.

"Captain. Garbage pile, 1 o'clock, 50 meters," he called out.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"Slow up, let me take a look."

After scanning with his rifle scope, he called down, "No wires, looks clear."

And so we rolled on, into the slums of West Rashid.

Late in the day, deep in the urban Baghdad district of al-Bayaa, I was walking back to the Humvee when I saw Marcus staring at a spot up the road.

"Hey, Captain, that's it," he said to me.

"That's what?"

"That's the spot, where the EFP was buried."

I glanced at the GPS screen and realized this was the exact spot where, less than one month ago, the EFP had sliced through his truck, killing my company commander and his driver.

"Can I take a look?" he asked.

I told him sure, and walked with him to the side of the road.

The hole was smaller than I expected — about the size of a basketball backboard. Filled with sewage water and old food wrappers, it still bore the charred signs of explosives. Marcus knelt down and looked into the hole.

"Yup, this is it all right," he said as he glanced into the street. He pointed to the intersection and described the hours it took to put the flames out. Then he was silent for a few seconds before signaling, "OK, time to go now."

I walked with him back to the stifling Humvee and watched him crawl back into the gun turret. He slipped his headset over his ears and adjusted the microphone in front of his mouth.

"Radio check, this is Darkness, how you read?" he asked.

"Savage three, roger," I answered when I had my headset in place.

"Ready when you are, Captain," Marcus said.

We pulled into the intersection and headed north along one of the roads, leaving the dirty hole behind us. I turned around and looked into the turret and saw the Darkness diligently scanning his sector, humming a tune to himself that no one else seemed to hear.

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Nate Rawlings